Discussion of racism on Leiter’s blog

Brian Leiter has picked up on the comment by LK McPherson that is also discussed in my post on the APA newsletter, which is several posts down from this one. Readers here might want to have a look at what’s going on over there.

Brian’s post is here:

20 thoughts on “Discussion of racism on Leiter’s blog

  1. The first comment to the Leiter post by Prof. Hales does more than anything to underscore the hostile racial and gender environment in the philosophy discipline (in the United States). Prof. Hales sneeringly characterizes Prof. McPherson’s critique of racial imbalances as a “homily,” condescendingly acknowledges it as “heartfelt” (note the implicit contrast to Prof. Hales’ rational/logical statement), and then astonishingly race-baits Prof. McPherson as claiming that racial imbalances are all (all!) “due to wicked racist hiring committees.” Of course, he then asks for “data.”

    If one really wanted to find out why racial and gender imbalances are so glaring in philosophy, one good starting point would be to begin with the social-structural explanations for Prof. Hales’ white male privilege.

  2. Is that right? If someone is skeptical that philosophy is a racially hostile discipline that proves that it is? How can one, then, possibly respond the allegation? It turns out one can’t by this ‘logic.’

  3. Brian,

    Please attend to what I wrote. If you read carefully, you’ll notice that my critique is not at all against any such “global” thing as skepticism to philosophy’s racial hostility. Instead, it is a very specific critique of Prof. Hales’ response to Prof. McPherson. In other words, if I have to spell it out, there are many other ways of responding to Prof. McPherson than to label his comment a “homily” and (much, much worse!) characterize his point in racially inflammatory terms.

    If I were to follow your logic, it would appear that Prof. Hales exhausts the space of skeptical responses. But that’s obviously not so. There are much more thoughtful ways of engaging Prof. McPherson’s point that do not involve race-baiting.

  4. Brian, thanks so much for picking up on this issue. I honestly don’t know how much can be accomplished today or tomorrow, but it is terrific to see you bring the topic to the attention of your large audience.

    I am concerned about some of the reaction, and I’m particularly worried about framing the problem in ways that leave in place the power differences – that’s a worry about various comments. But still we’re moving away from the problem’s being invisible.

  5. Elijah, I agree. There are fairly minimal assumptions he could have made about Lk that would have necessitated a different reaction. E.g., this is a reasonably intelligent member of the profession, who is responsible enough not to report a grudge as a national problem, etc. It’s pretty shocking, I felt, that he did not grant grant Lionel any initial plausibity.

  6. jj, I think it is an interesting point you make about the problem of racism in philosophy being invisible. Perhaps it would be worthwhile to have a “what it is like”-type blog for racism in philosophy, too, since the “what it is like to be a woman” blog seems quite successful at raising awareness of the issues.

    Elijah, I agree that the particularities of the comment seemed dismissive (and also misread some of the criticism).

  7. I’m very glad to see the conversation picked up by the Leiter Reports, and I especially appreciate the question with which he titled the post, “Is there any hope for the racial diversity of the philosophy profession?” The responses are interesitng, but I’m sorry to see that they get away from answering the question. I take heart from Temidayo Ogedengbe’s optimistic note.

    I do not read condescension into referring to LK’s post as heartfelt, and brush off as typical a philosopher’s loaded language characterizing something as a homily; it bothers me much, much more that Prof. Hales’ last sentence includes wearisome straw-manning when he says, “and then assume it is all due to wicked racist hiring committees”. Glad the moderator sounded a dissent, but I find this sort of straw-man fallacy recurs in discussions of diversity in philosophy. It’s depressing.

    On a cheerier note, I am certain there are things that can be done about the future of the profession and the improvement of the diversity of our field! At least, I’m certain other fields have done things that have worked. I am not optimistic that philosophers would enact successful practices, but I know it is possible.

  8. I don’t see why ‘homily’ is ‘sneering’, nor do I understand the problem with Hales’ asking for data. ‘Homily’, as i read it, was opposed to ‘argument’, and it perfectly fair in this context. And indeed only more information can tell us to what extent it’s a pipeline issue (I don’t particularly like that word but it has apparently gained currency).

    I do agree that Hales’ overall tone is somewhat dismissive, but on the other hand I also thought McPherson’s tone was condescending in its turn. I think we should generally try not to read too much tone into blog entries and comments (I’m pretty sure comments of mine have been read with tone I didn’t intend).

  9. Rick, calling it a homily makes the comment seem to have no epistemic merit whatsoever. At the very least, that’s a strong reaction to something a black philosophy professor says. If he had just said instead “supposed obervation” it would allow it MIGHT have some epistemic merit.

  10. jj, hmm, I don’t see that. If he had said ‘lecture’ instead of ‘homily’, would that have struck you differently?

    Oy, it’s kind of embarrassing to be focusing in on niceties of diction in the middle of what is a much more important social issue than I’m used to writing about!

    In any case, the racial homogeneity of contemporary philosophy is depressing, and I’d support efforts to do something about it though I have no idea what those might be.

  11. Rick and I may disagree about the inevitability of ‘homily’ having pejorative connotations, but I could not agree more that reading tone into online posts is best avoided. The overt statements are passionate enough.

    (I’m trying to develop online writing practices which are rather Stoical, myself. I value the emotional life but I’ve concluded that the interweb is not the place to celebrate it.)

  12. I’m sorry to be a wet blanket, but I think that while members of the philosophy profession are happy to engage in spirited discussions of why our profession is so lacking in diversity, of all sorts, there is in fact no will among the members at large to change things or to assume any responsibility for enacting change. This distinguishes philosophers from other disciplines who are far more willing on the whole to buckle down and do something about it.

  13. 1. Of course, analyzed on its own, the word “homily” may or may not be dismissive. But Prof. Hales comment ought to be interpreted in its context. And what is that context? To start with, not simply one word, “homily,” but as it is made in the context of his entire statement. His caricaturing of Prof. McPherson’s claim as reducible to the machinations of “wicked racist hiring committees” must be considered as part of the interpretive frame for understanding what is going on in that comment.

    2. Rick states: “It’s kind of embarrassing to be focusing in on niceties of diction in the middle of what is a much more important social issue than I’m used to writing about!”

    But herein lies the problem. Race and Racism (as is gender and sexuality) are constituted at least partly through language. We will not see Racism ambling toward us in a large red coat. If we are serious about engaging racism, we ought to recognize that racial supremacy is performed in the fine texture of social relations — including the nuances of language and meaning.

    Here is the point: Prof. Hales comment should be seen in the context of the fine texture within which racial supremacy is performed. Racism is not always intentional, and its certainly not always about what somebody “intended.” This ought to be a big lesson (for philosophers who seem to need lessons in sociology and anthropology) of the blog “What Is It Like to be a Woman in Philosophy.” In that sense, “data” is important if such data is sensitive to the fine texture of social practice, but such data may be misleading if it is interpreted ahistorically and acontextually as simply a matter of numbers.

    3. I think there are deeper questions here that also touch on the limitations of dominant strains of practicing analytic philosophy. Its ahistoricism. Its will to abstraction and compartmentalization. Its naive realism. There are striking exceptions of course: Mark Lance and Rebecca Kukla’s work on language shows that there are those who refuse to compartmentalize. But, given that some definitions of what it means to be a “philosopher” are so deeply gendered and racialized (and that these are held even and sometimes especially by those who think of themselves as “progressive”), I am deeply pessimistic that there is any hope in the immediate horizon.

  14. thanks elijah; i hadn’t thought of things in quite the way you expressed them @13. that’s really helpful. the point about the incessant call for data is really good; this is a problem that we’ve talked about with regards to gender a lot. you can have all the data in the world in front of you, but if you still don’t believe in the existence of, say, misogyny, or if you don’t believe that thought is at least to some degree a product of its history, then you will not be able to see what is right in front of you. this is why race and gender are already philosophical (as in Charles Mills’ Blackness Visible, for instance, the work going on in epistemologies of ignorance, racial ontologies, etc), which just shows everything that philosophy is missing when we just throw up our hands and says, oh well, i guess women and people of color just aren’t interested.

  15. I’m pretty sure I did interpret the word ‘homily’ in the context of the entire comment, Elijah. And as I said, it seems to me to be pretty accurate — even though some other things Hales says don’t seem right to me. When someone — even a philosopher I respect, like McPherson — announces that concerns about the pipeline problem are fraudulent, but without adding anything to back it up, I do think that’s lecture-y. To be honest, if it weren’t made by someone I already knew something about, I would be inclined to give the pronouncement little or no epistemic merit, as jj puts it.

    I don’t agree with sk on ‘incessant calls for data”, either. Look at what McPherson says: the studies of the pipeline problem that some people think are important he dismisses on the grounds that they “presuppose that the gross underrepresentation of blacks in philosophy is due almost entirely to external factors.” They presuppose no such thing. To the contrary, the studies aim to *find out* to what extent the underrepresentation is due to external factors, or at least to get a start on finding out. So on that point I’m inclined to agree with Hales on the substance, while preferring Profbigk’s more Stoic style.

  16. Hm, sorry, that was me, Rick, who just posted #15. The “leave a reply” window won’t let me fill in the blanks for my name and email, for some reason.

  17. Sorry, Anonymous and chums, there seems to be a bit of hitchy glitchiness on WordPress at this time.

    Thanks for appreciating my Stoic style, but I haven’t achieved it yet! It’s a virtue I aim for, but it will take practice.

  18. Thank you, sk. There was a moment when I had to make a choice between philosophy and my current field. The overt hostility and discrimination was there, of course, such as statements about “primitive cultures in Africa” etc etc. But in the long run, what wore me out were the corrosive, sustained patterns of condescension, dismissal, carelessness, neglect, machismo, proud ignorance of other philosophical traditions embedded in the fine texture of interaction (in and out of the classroom). i) The assumption that “intuitions” of my white male colleagues in the classroom were instantly credible while my citations of empirical scholarly work on gender, race, and sexuality, were “irrelevant” to philosophy. It was no use explaining that the philosophy of race spoke to contested questions in metaphysics, epistemology, language… ii) the philosophy journals I liked to read (such as Hypatia) were dismissed by a philosopher I knew as “not really philosophical” — even though this philosopher did not know a single thing about feminist philosophy and hadn’t read anything on the philosophy of race iii) Specific statements I made about specific texts were baldly twisted as “global” attacks on “logic,” “ontology,” “epistemology.” iv) I watched as professor after professor dismissed non-Western philosophy as “not really philosophical,” as “religious,” as “odd” while performing terrible contortions to rescue the most implausible sections of Kant or Nietzsche (and of course, the selective reading required to make over Aristotle, or Kant, or Nietzsche, or whoever to have the same views as the philosopher doing the reading was the norm). These professors were, mind, “progressive.” So I left.

  19. Re “homily”, I think it does carry pejorative connotations for many of those who read the comment, regrettably. In fact, it apparently has at least one pejorative *denotation* in the common vernacular, according to Am. Heritage Dictionary (“A tedious moralizing lecture or admonition”) – though it’s not clear to me why “homily” should suggest “no epistemic merit whatsoever” (or exclude argument). Of course, a homily is technically a kind of textual commentary, not just a sermon or lecture, but I expect Prof. Hales did in fact mean to say that Prof. McPherson was delivering a “tedious moralizing lecture”, or at least used the term “homily” knowing full well that it would prompt that interpretation for many.

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